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A new, incisive history of the transcontinental railroads and how they transformed America in the decades after the Civil War.
The transcontinental railroads of the late nineteenth century were the first corporate behemoths. Their attempts to generate profits from proliferating debt sparked devastating panics in the U.S. economy. Their dependence on public largess drew them into the corridors of power, initiating new forms of corruption. Their operations rearranged space and time, and remade the landscape of the West. As wheel and rail, car and coal, they opened new worlds of work and ways of life. Their discriminatory rates sparked broad opposition and a new antimonopoly politics.
With characteristic originality, range, and authority, Richard White shows the transcontinentals to be pivotal actors in the making of modern America. But the triumphal myths of the golden spike, robber barons larger than life, and an innovative capitalism all die here. Instead we have a new vision of the Gilded Age, often darkly funny, that shows history to be rooted in failure as well as success.
The railroads may not have advanced civilization in America, notes this sharp-edged history, but they were eminently creative in their destruction.
Latter-day corporatistas will not be pleased with the neo-Marxist slant that eminent historian White (American History/Stanford Univ.; Remembering Ahanagran: Storytelling in a Family's Past, 1998, etc.) brings to his vigorous account of the 19th-century transcontinental railroads. It is that great scholar of entrepreneurship Joseph Schumpeter whose spirit guides much of White's book, particularly his notion that capitalism involves "creative destruction," the constant uprooting of the old for the new in order to sell it all over again. (Think of CDs replacing LPs, and of MP3s replacing CDs.) In the case of the railroads, the creative destruction involved the replacement of one form of corporation with another—and if, as White argues, the 19th-century railroad corporations almost always went bust in the manner of the dotcoms in our own time, the individuals who controlled those corporations mostly did well for themselves. As he writes, "[t]he celebrated creative destruction of capitalism is, it seems, gentle with the rich," an observation not to be lost in our own time. White peoples the narrative with characters who are fascinating as case studies of the seven deadly sins, such as entrepreneur and wheeler-dealer Tom Scott, who "was not so much tainted by corruption as impregnated with it"; and Samuel Huntington, who railed against Scott for beating him at his own game, complaining that "the devil, the communist, and the Pa. R.R. have united against us." Huntington opposed Leland Stanford, too, but Stanford was a staunch Republican, and the Republican powers that be warned him that if Huntington's opposition cost Stanford his Senate seat, "they would punish Huntington by punishing [his] railroad." And so forth, one alliance conspiring against another—but, as White makes clear, all conspiring to grow rich, and all at the expense of the working people.
Excellent big-picture, popularly written history of the Howard Zinn mold, backed by a mountain of research and statistics.
List of Illustrations xiii
List of Maps and Charts xv
1 Genesis 1
First Principles 3
Patriotism and Profit 9
The Acts of the Founders 17
Building with Other People's Money 26
Golden Spike 37
A Railroad Life: H. K. Thomas 39
2 Annus Horribilis: 1873 47
Springtime in Mexico 51
Springtime in Canada 55
The Indians' Perpetual Winter 59
Political Storms Brewing 62
Information and Trust 66
The Long Winter 77
Stories of the Fall 84
A Railroad Life: William Hyde 88
3 Friends 93
The Lobby 102
Antimonopoly and Party Politics 109
The Southern Transcontinental 118
Reform in the Gilded Age 130
A Railroad Life: Elias C. Boudinot 134
4 Spatial Politics 140
Absolute Space 142
Relational Space 146
The Things They Carried 152
How Railroad Rates Construct Space 162
The Rise of the Octopus 169
Regulating Space 174
A Railroad Life: Alfred A. Cohen 179
5 Kilkenny Cats 186
Creative Destruction 188
The Colton Trial 197
Rationalizing Irrationality 212
Superheroes of Bad Management 216
A System That Did Not Bury Its Dead 223
Mise en Scène: Labor in Nature 225
6 Men in Octopus Suits 230
The Visible Hand 235
Men and Boys: Manhood and Management 243
A Political Animal 252
Going Off the Tracks 264
A Railroad Life: William Mahl 270
7 Workingmen 278
Control of Work 282
The Knights of Labor 287
Contract Labor and the Chinese 293
Rock Springs 305
Workers' Marginalism 314
A Railroad Life: William Pinkerton 317
8 Looking Backward 326
Benevolent Trusts 332
Waiting for Natural Monopoly 334
Labor's Defeats 336
The Interstate Commerce Commission 355
The Interstate‐Commerce Railway Association 359
Mise en Scène: The Death of Johanna Grogan 366
9 Collapse 370
An Alcoholics Anonymous for Railroads 372
Villard and Adams 382
The Second Fall of Henry Villard 391
The Panic of 1893 393
The Struggles of the Octopus 398
Mise en Scène: Reading the Newspapers 410
10 Strike 414
The Courts 418
Union Pacific and Great Northern 422
The Decline of the Octopus 450
Mise en Scène: Following the Detectives 453
11 Creative Destruction 455
Dumb Growth 460
The Diverging Dakotas 482
Rain Follows the Plow 486
Mise en Scène: Wovoka 496
Posted September 8, 2011
Posted September 26, 2013
This book was well researched and very well written. A bit long in the tooth as it contained more data and facts than just about any book I have read.
However, I find it hard to believe that every manager of every railroad was corrupt and that every politician associated with the roads was corrupt. White even blames the roads for the demise of native americans and the buffalo. Due to the author's negative views, it became a tiresome read after awhile.
1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 2, 2012
The book sounds like the author Richard White has a problem with everything and everybody in America . Way too much information given on certain subjects. He probibly is at one of the occupy wall street camps at this writing.
1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 12, 2011
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